Imagine reading alongside a Rembrandt, researching in the shadow of sculptures by Rodin, and paying fines beside a Picasso. Such scenes were commonplace along Fullerton’s Commonwealth Avenue in the 1960s.
The Hunt Branch Library in Fullerton served not only as a library, but also as a community center and fine-art museum thanks to a generous gift to the city from Norton Simon, a name now synonymous with a world-class fine-art collection because of his eponymous museum in Pasadena. But what Pasadena has enjoyed since the museum opened was first offered to Fullerton. Not many know the Hunt Branch Library served as a precursor to the Norton Simon Museum, displaying Simon’s growing art collection beginning in 1962.
Why Fullerton? Simon owned and operated canned-food company Val Vita Food Products in the city (established in 1931, it later became Hunt Foods and Industries, then Hunt-Wesson Foods). He and his wife, Lucille, got married and moved to Fullerton in 1933. Their first home was a rental off Luanne Avenue, and after their two sons were born in town, they lived in the Lamhofer House off Valley View until 1939. (Simon also had a Newport Beach house on Lido Isle that was used as a vacation home and secondary office.)
As his industry grew, so did his vast fortune. Despite being one of the largest employers in the then-rural farmland of Fullerton, Hunt’s presence in the town was not without scandal. Public views of Simon and his company ranged from a socially awkward recluse and workaholic to a cigar-chomping, exploitative, capitalist fat-cat, depending on which profile in the papers of the day you believed.
The cannery in Fullerton experienced multiple labor disputes including worker strikes, picketing and walkouts between 1941 and 1946. It was in 1946 that Simon’s father replaced Norton as head of Hunt Foods with Norton’s more charismatic brother-in-law Frederick R. Weisman, who would run the company until 1958.
In the 1950s, Norton Simon returned as a prodigal son of Fullerton, and both he and Hunt Foods became more involved in the civic community than ever before. Hunt employees were encouraged to volunteer in the community, and the company established the Hunt Foods Charitable Foundation. It was through this foundation—which would later become the Norton Simon Art Foundation—that the Hunt Branch Library would be created and gifted to the city and citizens of the town that built the multimillion-dollar company.
In 1959, Hunt Foods developed plans for the Hunt Foods complex, with a new corporate headquarters, community park, public library and hopes for an art museum. Simon enlisted architect and planner William L. Pereira, who had designed the Disneyland Hotel, Bullock’s Fashion Square in Santa Ana (later MainPlace Mall), LAX and the LA Zoo, to name a few. Pereira would later go on to be the mastermind behind the master-planned community of Irvine, as well as the designer of UC Irvine, Golden West College in Huntington Beach, the LA Times building in Costa Mesa, the old Orange County airport and many more now-iconic buildings in the county and across the country.
“William Pereira is one of the most important shapers of Southern California in a period of the mid- and late 20th century,” explains Irvine-based architect, historian, author and historic preservationist Alan Hess. “So many aspects, including the economy, education system, and suburban and urban formation. “Pereira contributed in a positive way to all of these aspects. And he also contributed in practical forms, such as providing a headquarters for a major food-processing plant in Fullerton [Hunt Foods].”
In 1959, Pereira set to work on the Hunt Branch Library in what was a rural and industrial part of town. More than just a couple of buildings, the Hunt Complex was designed to be a true community center. The 2.2-acre plot of land had large tracts of grass, wading and reflecting pools, and, at the center, “Fullerton’s Hidden Gem”: the library.
Pereira designed the complex “as a progressive, as someone looking toward the future, looking to new technology, new ways of life, and giving them form,” Hess explains.
“You have these T-shaped columns that’s expressed on the exterior of the building,” he describes wistfully. “There isn’t anything quite like that [left in Orange County].”
Despite this grand gift, Simon’s political blemishes in the city from the 1940s remained like pockmarks kept into adulthood from a childhood case of chicken pox. The residents and city council couldn’t forget the literal strikes against Hunt during and just after World War II. Simon’s offer to host his growing collection of priceless art in his industry’s hometown was not accepted. After several years, he instead established the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena in 1975.
“If you can imagine Fullerton being the great tourist attraction that Pasadena is now with Norton Simon Museum,” Hess says. “It was certainly a missed opportunity.”
The priceless art that hung on the walls of the library and in the courtyard were packed up to Pasadena in the late 1960s, but the building remains. It operated as a library for more than 50 years before severe county budget cuts to the library led to furlough days which turned to lights out completely in 2013.
All the shelves and books wait in their plastic wrapping to be reopened, as if they are in some episode of The Twilight Zone, a Henry Bemis wet dream. A small but growing community of concerned citizens—Save the Hunt, backed by the Fullerton Heritage organization, with in-spirit support from Preserve Orange County (of which Hess is on the board of directors)—meet regularly to brainstorm ways this significant gift to Fullerton can once again open its doors to serve its community.
“Fullerton’s Hidden Gem” tour of the Hunt Branch Library, 201 S. Basque Ave., Fullerton; savethehunt.com. Mon., 5:30 p.m. Free; followed by a presentation by Alan Hess at Pacific Drive Elementary School, 1501 W. Valencia Dr., Fullerton. Mon., 7 p.m. Free.
When not running the OCWeekly.com and OC Weekly’s social media sites, Taylor “Hellcat” Hamby can be found partying like it’s 1899.